How “Fixing Your Posture” Could be Causing Your Back Pain and What to Do About It
Earlier this year I made a post called 4 Tips to Get More Flexible Without Stretching, and the #1 item on the list was to improve your posture. This post offers a deeper dive into posture, how some “fixes” can actually create back pain, and a checklist with alternatives.
We all know that hunching over like a buzzard is not good for us. The “tech neck”, rounded back, forward-thrusted head, and drooping shoulders characteristic of our modern lifestyle is obviously problematic. But how do you fix it? What should you do instead?
The most common “fix” that I see is to thrust the chest forward, lift the chin, and pull the shoulders “down and back” like a proud peacock. While this posture may work for peacocks, it isn’t so great for human anatomy and can actually cause more chronic pain, especially in the mid and upper back.
This tutorial is a little step-by-step bottom-up checklist for getting your bones stacked up and your muscles gently but firmly engaged for relaxed, healthy, mobile posture.
It is important to note that “perfect” posture is not a requirement for health or the same for all bodies. There is tremendous variety in the way our bodies are formed so this might not be what is optimal for you. This is just a set of guidelines you can use to check in with your body if you are having back pain or if you notice that your posture is feeling weird.
Posture Checklist to Align Your Spine
1. Notice How your Posture is Now
The textbooks have some guidelines for correct posture that I take as a loose jumping-off point, understanding that all bodies are different. Look for the landmarks of your ear, your shoulder bone, bone on the outside of your hip (the greater trochantur of the femur), the middle of the knee, and the ankle bone and get them all lined up one on top of the other.
Noticing where you deviate from this vertical line can help you identify some postural corrections that might help with chronic pain or tightness.
2. Check Your Pelvic Bones
All of us have different sizes and shapes for our hips, butt and bellies that make our posture look different, and that is part of what keeps the world interesting! Instead, I like to assess pelvic position using the bones, since those tend to be more (but by no means completely) consistent.
The two hip bones in the front (the anterior superior illiac spine or ASIS for those who care) and the pubic bone make a downwards-facing triangle in the front of the hips. With some variation for anatomy, you want to make these boney landmarks flat and symmetrical with each other so that the pelvis isn’t tilted side-to-side or front-to-back.
This generally involves a gentle engagement of the muscles of the pelvic floor and the illiopsoas. I have a number of workouts on pelvic stability if this feels mysterious and inaccessible for you and you can see how this looks in the video below at 2:00 minutes.
3. Engage Your Meat Corset
The meat corset is my fond nickname for a triple-layered band of muscles that wraps around your waist like a corset made of you. The transverse abdominus, internal obliques, and external obliques are a vital set of postural muscles, and like all postural muscles they are ideally awake and responsive almost all the time.
You can feel your meat corset by putting your hands on your waist and coughing or laughing. For postural work these muscles only need to be awake and lightly engaged. The “suck in your gut” cue that I loathe does not encourage sustainable posture, and endless crunches aren’t going to help either. I find that breathwork can be a good entrée to building that healthy meat corset structure.
Again, check out some of my workouts for some meat corset strengthening ideas and see the visual at 2:50 in the video below.
3. Open The Shoulders Without Squishing the Shoulder Blades
Forward rounded shoulders are the scourge of modernity, with so many of us sitting hunched over keyboards, phones, steering wheels, gaming consoles, textbooks, food preparation, sewing machines, antique scrolls, you name it. As previously stated, the common “fix” of thrusting the chest forward, squeezing the shoulder blades together, and lifting the chin is suboptimal. It strains and compresses the muscles of the upper back in a way they will not enjoy long-term and can create ongoing back pain if you try to maintain it.
Those gimmicky postural aides that encourage squeezing your shoulder blades together are just going to create a host of new issues for you.
The trick with shoulder blades is actually to pull them apart, while externally rotating the shoulder socket. This will get your upper back engaged sustainably while opening up the front of the chest and shoulder, and stacking that shoulder joint over your hip.
For an exercise to help you find this tricky position, please check out the video embedded below. For this specific tutorial skip to 4:00.
4. Stack that Ear
The head and neck come last, stacking them comfortably over the nice foundation you just built along the rest of your spine.
Many of us have a forward thrust to our head, so that the ear habitually sits in front of the shoulder instead of over it (see previous list of reasons). This position makes the neck muscles have to work much, much harder to hold up that heavy coconut of a head.
My favorite quick exercise to start to bring that head back in line is to interlace the finger into a basket cupping the back of the head, elbows wide, and gently press the head and hands together, feeling the inspiration of the muscles in both the upper back and the front of the neck. The chin should not be lifted or dropped, but remain parallel to the floor.
For that tutorial, skip to 6:30 in the video below.
Now What? Why is Good Posture so Awkward?
The first time I ran through this checklist and tried to align my posture correctly I got mad. How the hell was I supposed to walk around like this? It felt foreign, difficult, and uncomfortable.
The good news is that perfect posture is not a requirement for a rich, full, happy life or even for pain-free mobility. Like so many other things in life it is pretty much always a work in progress, something you chip away at, check in on, and use as a tool when you need it. If your current posture doesn’t cause you problems and is working for you, you may not need to change it. If you start to have pain, then running this checklist may provide relief.
When I was really dedicated to improving my posture to address my hypermobile back and a lower back pain I set an alarm on my phone to go off every hour on the hour to remind me to run through the check list. After a while I didn’t need the checklist, my body just started to remember to do it.
My posture now definitely isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough that I don’t have back pain any more and I still run through the check list if I’m on my feet for a long time or feel like I need it. It’s change the way that I walk and run, and vastly improved my forward bending which was always pretty crappy.
I hope this checklist is useful for you too!